State of the Art

In ideal world, documentary would have legs

John Wood (left) meets Shannon Whisnant in a parking lot in Maiden after a 2007 press conference to discuss who owns Wood’s severed leg.
JEFF WILLHELM/jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
John Wood (left) meets Shannon Whisnant in a parking lot in Maiden after a 2007 press conference to discuss who owns Wood’s severed leg. JEFF WILLHELM/jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com Staff Photographer

When I heard in 2007 about a Catawba County man who bought a barbecue smoker with a human leg inside – and refused to return the limb to the guy who lost it in a plane crash – my split-second impression was, “Holy *@^%$! Only in the South.”

Now “Finders Keepers” gives all America a chance to judge us, too.

The documentary that opened the Charlotte Film Festival last month will get its only other local screening at Studio-C Cinema in Cornelius: It’ll show at 7 p.m. Oct. 16-17 at Warehouse Performing Arts Center, then find its real home through Video on Demand and streaming sources.

At first glance, it plays into all the Southern stereotypes that have been built up since about World War I. John Wood, who lost both leg and smoker when he couldn’t pay rent on a storage facility, is a longtime drug addict and alcoholic who goes on national TV with a missing front tooth. Shannon Whisnant, who thought he could profit by marketing the limb, says “perspire” when he means “transpire” and thinks formaldehyde is cholesterol.

Virtually everyone in Whisnant’s world is overweight: himself, his wife, his friends, his mom, even his hairdresser. They smoke. His wife wears way too much eye makeup and an “Aye Caramba Tequila” T-shirt for her interview. Directors Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel felt most of America wouldn’t understand the dialogue, so they sometimes subtitle White and Whisnant when they’re drawling.

Yet look past those stereotypes, and a narrative arc emerges. We get beyond the freakishness of a guy preserving a severed limb as a memorial to his father (who died piloting the plane in that crash) and the creepiness of a guy hoping to profit by this mummified token. The story becomes one of class and family dynamics.

Both grew up in Maiden – one prosperous and oblivious, one poor and resentful – under fathers they could never please, and the attention focused on these men by one loopy encounter changes both lives.

So why isn’t this compelling movie in theaters?

The Orchard, which is distributing it, decided not to release it theatrically and wait before putting it out other ways. The big chains Regal and AMC virtually never exhibit movies in Charlotte that are instantly accessible on video or via streaming.

Carolina Cinemas Crownpoint and Ayrsley Grand, indie houses that were logical locales for this picture, hosted the Charlotte Film Festival and probably figured it had reached its audience. (I don’t think it did.)

At that point, the filmmakers were, metaphorically speaking, on their knee. Rumors that Regal might yield a screen turned out to be false, and Studio-C – which has consistently offered inventive programming – took it on.

The movie has appealed to almost everyone who has seen it, myself included. On Rotten Tomatoes, it had a 97 percent “fresh” rating and a 100 percent audience approval on Friday night.

And in a city that was really “world-class” – an adjective still applied to Charlotte occasionally – we’d have a much easier time trying to see it.

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